The referendum will not immediately bring independence, but it would mark a definitive stance by the Kurds to break away, and Kurdish leaders say they will use a “yes” vote to press for negotiations with Iraq’s central government to win statehood. Iraq has called the vote constitutional and it is opposed by Iran, Syria and Turkey, who also have Kurdish minorities.
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Turkish president, on Monday threatened military intervention in response to the vote, stressing that Kurdish independence was unacceptable to his country and that this was a “matter of survival.”
He said Turkey would take also take political and economic measures against steps toward independence and suggested it could halt oil flows arriving through a pipeline from northern Iraq, depriving Iraqi Kurds of revenues. “We have the valve. The moment we shut the valve, that’s the end of it,” he said.
Iran, which on Monday called the vote “untimely and wrong” and has since Sunday been holding a military exercise in its northwestern Kurdish region bordering Iraq.
More than 3 million people are expected to vote across the three provinces that make up the Kurdish autonomous region, as well as residents in disputed territories – areas claimed by both Baghdad and the Kurds, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk – according to the Independent High Elections and Referendum Commission, the body overseeing the vote.
Lines began forming early in the day at polling stations across Erbil, the Kurdish regional capital.
“Today we came here to vote in the referendum for the independence of Kurdistan,” said Tahsin Karim, one of the first people to vote in his neighbourhood. “We hope that we can achieve independence.”
The Kurdish region’s president, Masoud Barzani, also voted early on Monday morning at a polling station packed with journalists and cameras. At a press conference in Erbil on the eve of the referendum, Barzani said he believed the vote would be peaceful, though he acknowledged that the path to independence would be “risky”. “We are ready to pay any price for our independence,” he said.
The US, a key ally of Iraq’s Kurds, has warned the vote is likely to destabilise the region amid the fight with Islamic State. The Iraqi central government has demanded on Sunday that all airports and borders crossings in the Kurdish region be handed back to federal government control.
In a televised address from Baghdad on Sunday night, the Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, said: “The referendum is unconstitutional. It threatens Iraq, peaceful coexistence among Iraqis and is a danger to the region.”
He added: “We will take measures to safeguard the nation’s unity and protect all Iraqis.”
Initial results from the poll are expected on Tuesday, with the official results to be announced later in the week.
At his press conference, Barzani also said that while the referendum would be the first step in a long process to negotiate independence, the region’s “partnership” with the Iraqi central government in Baghdad was over.
He detailed abuses inflicted on Iraq’s Kurds by Iraqi forces, including killings at the hands of Saddam Hussein’s army that left more than 50,000 Kurds dead.
Iraqi Kurds have long dreamed of independence – something the Kurdish people were denied when colonial powers drew the map of the Middle East after the first world war. The Kurds form a sizable minority in Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Iraq. In Iraq, they have long been at odds with the Baghdad government over the sharing of oil revenues and the fate of disputed territories such as Kirkuk.
The Kurds have been a close American ally for decades, and the first US airstrikes in the campaign against Isis were launched to protect Erbil. Kurdish forces later regrouped and played a major role in driving the extremists from much of northern Iraq, including Mosul, the country’s second-largest city.
But the US has long been opposed to Kurdish moves toward independence, fearing it could lead to the breakup of Iraq and bring even more instability to an already volatile Middle East.
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